In 2007, I published a review essay in Foreign Affairs explaining how then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was compensating for Japan's relative economic decline by reducing anachronistic constraints on the Japanese self-defense forces and aligning more closely with other maritime democracies, beginning with the U.S.-Japan alliance. Unfortunately for Japan -- and the shelf life of my piece -- Abe abruptly resigned a few months later after a sudden wave of missteps, political bad luck, and failing health. Over the next five years Japan suffered through multiple leadership transitions, with two Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers and three Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) prime ministers all stumbling at the starting line because they were unable to make any headway with Japan's stagnant economy. Abe, meanwhile, kept a low profile.
But as China upped the pressure on Japan over the contested Senkaku Islands, the LDP turned to the hawkish former prime minister last year to help them retake the government and restore Japan's self-confidence. Learning from his past errors, Abe has focused his early months on jump-starting the economy through "Abenomics" -- a combination of quantitative easing, stimulus spending, and promises of structural reform to increase productivity. Thus far it has worked: The markets and business confidence are up and Abe is the first prime minister in memory to see his personal support rate actually rise in office (now at 75% in some polls). In an energetic speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday, he declared to the audience that "Japan is back."
Abe's return seemed initially to confuse the Obama administration. His values-based, balance of power approach resonated much more with George W. Bush's second inaugural than the minimalist and risk-averse foreign policy vision President Obama has put forth for his second term. The administration also appeared spooked by Abe's intemperate campaign comments about the need to revisit Japan's previous official apologies to China and Korea. Numerous stories emerged before his visit to Washington citing unnamed senior U.S. officials promising to publicly shame Japan if the Abe administration went too far with historical revisionism. The pattern looked eerily reminiscent of what happened between the Obama administration and Bibi Netanyahu in the first term. For its part, the Japanese side was equally uncertain about seeming wobbliness in U.S. declaratory policy on the Senkaku issue since Hillary Clinton's departure and by John Kerry's promise in his confirmation hearings to "grow the rebalance towards Beijing" (it did not help that Chinese official editorials praised Kerry for having the wisdom not to "meddle" in Far Eastern affairs the way his predecessor had).
In the end, though, the Abe-Obama summit on Feb. 22 was a success for both sides. Since coming to office, Abe has moderated his stance on history issues and was firm but gracious towards China and especially South Korea in his CSIS speech. In the Oval Office press availability, President Obama reaffirmed that Japan is the "central foundation" of U.S. security policy toward the Pacific (though he sounded like he was searching for a teleprompter when he said it). The two leaders echoed each other on the need for a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution to deal with North Korea's recent nuclear test and there was little outward sign of frustration over the usual irritants on Okinawa base realignment. Even on the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where expectations were low, there was much more substance than met the eye. In a skillfully worded joint statement on Japan's possible participation in TPP, the U.S. side reaffirmed its position that all sectors had to be on the table and Abe restated the LDP campaign pledge that Japan would not commit to opening all sectors. That little piece of kabuki now allows Abe to state that he will seek to protect the rice market in negotiations and the administration to claim that all sectors will indeed be subject to negotiation. The Japanese delegation had a quiet spring in their step after the summit and were keen to move on TPP in a matter of weeks, slowing down mainly to accommodate the administration's need to line up support on its side (though Abe will have his own challenges within the LDP, to be sure). While the U.S. press was generally confused by the language on TPP, Congressional opponents of free trade knew what the joint statement meant right away, expressing their alarm within hours of the bilateral summit.
Abe has a lot to deliver still, and he knows it. "Abenomics" will run out of steam without real deregulation and reform (hence the Japanese business community and bureaucracy's enthusiasm for TPP as an action-forcing agreement). He also has to win the Upper House election scheduled for July, since failure to control both houses of the Diet has done in every prime minister since Koizumi. But Abe has begun to build up a head of steam. I have sat across the table from the last six Japanese prime ministers, and I always watch the faces of the political aides and senior bureaucrats behind them. I haven't seen such confident expressions since Koizumi was in the job.
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